The Kingfisher Project


Sydney Conservatorium, March 29
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

Soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo soprano Jenny Duck-Chong founded Halcyon in 1999 to go where other singers fear to tread, into the beautiful weirdness of exploratory new music. Now it is 2014 and, fifteen years on, time to reflect on this many-hued bird.

Halcyon is a creative powerhouse for Australian (and international) new music. In particular, the last five years have seen it champion emerging composers, through performances, commissions and mentor programs. But for its fifteenth birthday Halcyon has turned to older friends, composers who have been with them from the start, to compile an exquisite collection of twenty-one new works.

Last night’s performance featured ten of these four minute offerings. Andrew Ford’s To My Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship was a thoughtful scene-setter which pulled no punches in its technical demands of the singers. There was a spooky night scene from Jane Stanley, a watery blend of alto flute and voice from Dan Walker, and a flamboyant micro-drama from Graham Hair’s All About Anna. Nigel Butterley, Gordon Kerry and Andrew Schultz all demonstrated just how good they are at organizing sounds and words: Butterley’s gorgeous Nature Changes at the Speed of Life limited its palette to cello and soprano, while Kerry’s Music wove voices and instruments together in an almost orchestral mesh of textures. By contrast, Andrew Schultz’s deft prelude and fugue, Lake Moonrise, handed the main song to Duck-Chong and Morgan, with a choir of individual, instrumental voices underneath. A highlight, for me, was Gillian Whitehead’s setting of two poems from Dunedin artist and writer Claire Beynon. To create such a delicate arc of meaning, amplifying and reflecting on the words at every turn, but still hanging together as a cogent and very beautiful whole shows great skill. To do it in just four minutes is mastery.

The Kingfisher Project is an inspired and pragmatic approach to broadening the Australian repertoire for singer and chamber ensemble: 21 eminently do-able short works which, combined together, represent a major review of Australia vocal writing. It’s Halcyon’s birthday, but we get the present.

Edited version published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2014, copyright Fairfax Media. 

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Dancing to Opera

I’ve seen two operas in the last week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’s Elektra, in semi-staged concert, while Opera Australia gave us Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, fully-staged. There was some glorious music-making in both, but what got me thinking was the use of dance in both pieces.

Courtesy Opera Australia

Courtesy Opera Australia

Eugene Onegin is never far from a dance: the grand polonaise, the cotillion, a peasant’s folk dance. This is what people do when they’re not harvesting wheat or running a household. It’s rhythmic, it’s colourful, and it follows a predictable, socially acceptable pattern, unlike those unruly emotions which get in the way of life.

Tatiana is not much of a dancer – funny that – and Onegin uses the dancing at her name-day as an offensive weapon, trampling his best friend in a fatal fit of irritation. By the third act,  the jaunty cotillion which interrupts Onegin’s troubled thoughts is a moment of supreme irony.

Elektra, on the other hand, is short on quicksteps, but David Robertson and his colleague, SSO artistic planner Peter Czornyj, were on to something when they fixed on the theme of dance running through the work. Their inspiration was Elektra’s final words:

Be silent, and dance
Come here to me, all of you!
Close your ranks!
I bear the burden of joy and I lead you in the dance.
There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we:
to be silent and dance!

It’s not the first time she invokes the power of the dance: it comes earlier, when she’s talking to Chrysothemis. But she’s not thinking of Tchaikovsky’s courtly dances, which offer a mindless escape from worldly troubles. This is a visceral, Dionysian stomp, an unleashing of physicality rather than a controlled, social patterning.

So plenty of suggestion in the music and the words for both works. But how did the two shows integrate dance, and was it successful?

Strauss first. The choreographer here was Stephanie Lake, working with eight dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. (And a note – I’m no expert on dance, so I’m simply going on the layman’s impression here). The duets, trios and ensemble episodes came across as powerful abstract expressions of anguish, not trying to tell the story so much as amplify the music. But with the massive orchestra sprawled out across the Concert Hall stalls, Strauss’s music barely needed this kind of intensification. The orchestral musicians and singers generated an explosive level of intensity without further visual stimulation. Indeed, knowing where to look was a real challenge. Orchestra, singers, dancers or the surtitles, which were strung high above the stage?

The choreography came into its own towards the end of the work, not least when the evil waltz struck up for the entrance of Aegisthus. Suddenly, the dancing and the words and the music felt like they were actually integrated, rather than merely layered. And when Elektra (the magnificent Christine Goerke) climbed onto the dancing stage for her final dance of triumph all the art forms combined for a thrilling end.

Director Kasper Holten, who created this production of Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has used dance in two distinct ways. It is, as discussed before, a colourful and sometimes sardonic backdrop depicting Tatiana and Onegin’s social milieu. It is also a narrative device, but telling a story beyond the actual words with two solo dancers who double the singing Tatiana and Onegin. The doubles are useful in several ways – not least that they can be more touchingly youthful, more physical than their operatic counterparts (although soprano Nicole Car looks positively radiant throughout and has no need of a body double).

The main use is metaphoric: to act out some of the could haves, the would haves, the what ifs which haunt Pushkin’s story of doubly unrequited love. It’s quite powerful at times. Not in the letter scene where, for me, (singing) Tatiana felt distanced from rawness of (dancing) Tatiana’s emotions. But for Onegin, a character who only drops his mask of worldly ennui in the final scene, seeing a dancing double react to Lensky’s death alongside the cold, anaesthetised shock of singing Onegin is incredibly moving. Furthermore, the recounting in dance of Onegin’s idyll through the pleasures of Europe, danced to the Polonaise, is a stroke of genius, and the choreography, by Signe Fabricius, is at all times fluid, surprising, beautiful.

So, two experiments, each pushing the boundaries of opera with different degrees of success, in dramatic terms, but both also retaining the key elements of this art form: magnificent performances, close reading of the original, and music powering the emotions. New ways to do opera? I’m all for it.


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La boheme: Opera Australia

Another one killed by the Space monsters. Enjoy. I did.

La boheme
Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, January 4
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

4 stars

It’s Christmas Eve in Berlin, again. The lads are still behind with the rent, the ladies at Momus are still lovely, and Mimi is still looking for a light. As Gale Edwards’ glitzy take on La boheme rolls out for its fifth season in three years, some Opera Australia regulars might be forgiven for thinking they have déjà vu. Puccini’s music, however, never grows old, and a slew of fine performances keep the ennui at bay.

One of the delights of this production is that there are always new things to notice: a meaningful look between Schaunard and Colline as Marcello ignores Musetta, the glee of a youngster with a new toy, the maître de on the make. In spite of the vastness of the sets and the spectacle of Brian Thomson’s flashy Café Momus, this is intricate theatre, almost baroque in its detail, every individual on stage with a story to tell. At times there is so much to see, and Puccini’s score cracks on with such concentrated brevity, that it is almost a relief to see the third act quartet on a largely bare stage.

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello, Richard Anderson as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Sharon Prero as Musetta, Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo & Nicole Car as Mimì. Photo credit Branco Gaica.

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello, Richard Anderson as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Sharon Prero as Musetta, Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo & Nicole Car as Mimì.
Photo credit Branco Gaica.

The cast, very strong this year, are also at their best in the third act. Ji-Min Park returns to the role of Rodolfo with less physicality and more volume, his voice blooming at the top of the register, but slightly inconsistent in the middle. Giorgio Caoduro makes a winning Marcello, while Nicole Car continues to impress with her dynamic range and sheer beauty of tone. It is hard not to like her Mimi, even if she did blow out her candle and drop her key on purpose. The weakest of the four is Sharon Prero, in the role of the showgirl Musetta. Her singing and characterisation cut through the ensemble clutter but both could use a little more subtlety. Shane Lowrencev’s bottom-pinching Schaunard is equally obvious, dramatically, but rock solid musically, while Richard Anderson’s finely-turned rendition of Colline’s ‘Coat Aria’ stops the show for a lovely moment of intimate introspection.

The orchestral playing is ardent and rough-edged and occasionally overwhelms the singers, which actually serves to heighten the emotion as a surge of passion swamps clarity. The chorus work is, as ever, a multitasking masterpiece, juggling props and fancy footwork with the musical complexities of the second act finale. The greatest multitasker of them all, conductor Andrea Licata, pulls it all together with a sure hand and lifetime of experience in this repertoire, wringing a gut-wrenching play out from the strings as the story of Mimi and Rodolfo comes to its predictable end.

La boheme plays until January 21

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Review: SSO / Mozart at the Movies

This was written for Sydney Morning Herald but didn’t make it in due to space issues. Space. The Final Frontier. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Mozart at the Movies

City Recital Hall, February 6


3 stars

No heart attacks reported, but at least one lady in the audience jumped visibly last night when, from a whisper of a little tune the Sydney Symphony Orchestra pulled out a loud tutti bang. It was just the result Joseph Haydn had been looking for when he wrote some gimmicks into his Symphony No. 94 in G (Surprise) to get the London audiences of the 1730s talking, and just the thing to set the light-hearted tone of the first 2014 Mozart in the City concert for the year. Haydn’s real surprise in this symphony, however, is his endless capacity for invention, and the Orchestra, under the assured direction of concertmaster Dene Olding, laid out the intricacies of the score with satisfying clarity, a well-polished string sound underpinning the colourful interjections of flutes and oboes. The audience were prepared for the finale’s surprise, with grins all round at timpanist Richard Miller’s enthusiastic interjection.

There were no gimmicks in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467. Taking his lead from the finely-shaped introduction of the ensemble, Gavrylyuk brought a light touch to the conversational solo, pairing exacting precision with the give and take of a chamber musician. The limpid melody of the slow movement – yes, the Elvira Madigan theme — was blessedly free of indulgence; just a quiet moment of aching beauty, with sensitive accompaniment from strings and wind soloists. As for the finale, Olding set the orchestra off at a blistering pace, which Gavrylyuk picked up eagerly, settling comfortably into the rapid-fire scale passages like an athlete pacing himself for the final sprint. Not everyone reached the finishing line at the same time, but it was, nevertheless, an exciting race.

For an encore – the ‘mystery moment’ – Gavrylyuk threw off the restraints of the eighteenth-century galant style in favour of bare-faced showmanship with a transcription of Mozart’s Turkish March by Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos. It was everything a virtuoso piano solo should be: fast, furious and enormous fun. More music to make you smile.


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From the archive: Dietrich Fischer-Diskau

A guest post from Jeremy Wilson, archivist to the Dartington International Summer School of Music.

Browsing through past programmes it is striking to see the number of top-flight artists who have taught and performed over the years at the Summer School. Colin Davis, Simon Rattle, Elliott Carter, Tom Ades, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim and so on. What is easy to forget is that almost all of these came early in their careers, before they became big names.

The artistic directors, William Glock, Peter Maxwell Davies, Gavin Henderson and John Woolrich have all been masterly at recognising potential stars.

Dietrich Fischer-Diskau

Dietrich Fischer-Diskau came to the Summer School in 1953 – the year that it moved from Bryanston to Dartington. He was only 28, had given his first recital only four years earlier, and his first commercial recording only two years earlier. He gave two recitals, accompanied by William Glock, one of Beethoven lieder and the other of Schubert’s Winterreise.

As evidence of how little known he was in the country, concert tickets were selling so badly that Peter Cox, the arts administrator of Dartington Hall, had to circulate the local music society explaining that Fischer-Diskau was someone special. This appeal improved the attendance at the first recital, following which the word got round, so that for the performance of Winterreise we had to put out extra chairs wherever we could.

This performance was extraordinarily moving. Fischer-Diskau’s voice was light for a baritone, much more so than in later years, but extremely flexible. He stood very still, only his face moving, and one hardly needed the translation to understand the emotions being expressed. When he came to the last song, Der Leiermann, ‘the lonely organ grinder with his frozen fingers’, his face and his voice became utterly expressionless, hypnotically conveying the terrifying hopelessness of the end.

There was fully ten seconds of silence before any applause started.

This was the last concert of the first year of the Summer School at Dartington.


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A Night at the Circus

In a busy week in the South of England I managed to miss the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert at the Cadogan Hall, but I wasn’t too surprised to see that they got a rave review. Dead good band.

What I did get to was The Saturday Book, the 2012 show from Giffords Circus. It was a gorgeous summer’s evening on the common just above the ridiculously picturesque town of Marlborough, and there were little girls and boys running around with the sun in their hair and dusty bare feet. I suspect it was just the kind of scene Nell Gifford was thinking of when she dreamt up her traditional country circus.

We were ushered in by ladies in feathered head-dresses and Folies Bergeresque corsets. The big top was cosy, with a circus ring policed by an antique PC Plod complete with moustache and truncheon. The band dress code continued the cabaret theme, with an eccentric mix of stockings, garters and striped corsetry for the women, and hats for the men.

Clowning around on horses

Clowning around on horses

The show was an equally eccentric mix – music, song and dance, some well-worn pratfalls and a couple of excellent acrobat routines. There was a miniature talking pony (who couldn’t speak on the night I was there because he was – wait for it, wait for it – a little hoarse…) Ponymad Alex adored the big cob horses with backs like coffee tables, who cantered neatly around the tiny ring while people vaulted and bounced and balanced. Jester the dog joined in with ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’ (WOOF WOOF…) and Brian the Goose made a brief but memorable appearance.

Some acts were beyond eccentric. Nancy Trotter, the Pre-Raphaelite Girl, and her troupe of doves (Jupiter, Sybilla, Marie Anne, Antioch, Ray of Star, Greg, Moona, Pooch, Petroch and Peter) was quite, quite potty, a sort of emo-Edwardian interpretative dancer who also sang the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann (in duet with the trumpet player) in a low moan. Meanwhile the Godfathers, a four man acrobatic act from the Ukraine, were a highly satisfactory mixture of strong and agile and easy on the eye. Pat Bradford’s tap dancing – on hands and feet – was joyous and Tweedy the Clown did pretty much everything, including make us laugh.

Best of all, for me, was the band. Everyone seemed to play at least three instruments, and sing, and dance (and tightrope walk, and ride horses…) It was lovely to see loopy Nancy playing the French horn, and the French tightrope walker tucking into the trombone, while the usherettes also pulled out violins on occasion. And, I was assured, come nightfall they’d all be donning hard hats and high-viz vests to pull the whole shebang down, to get on the road to Devizes.

Many a young kid dreams of running away to join the circus. Nell Gifford really did. Now she’s made her own dream circus which brings together those very English traditions of music hall, panto and fairground curiosities. For the adults, the air feels heady with nostalgia for some fantastical past where Enid Blyton and Jane Austen wave to Sherlock Holmes in the street. For the kids, it’s strange and wonderful.

I’m so glad we went.

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From the archive: behind closed doors

A guest post from Jeremy Wilson, archivist to Dartington International Summer School

Being a Trog gives particular insights into the character and personality of artists, never more so than in the green room. Before going on stage some are quiet and withdrawn, some calm and relaxed, while others are unnaturally boisterous.

After the performance their behaviour may be even more revealing. When the violinist Henryk Scherying came off after a particularly long recital the Trog, offering him a glass, said, “you must feel tired after that…” The arrogant Szerying replied, “Does a High Priest feel tired after saying mass?”

A program from 1961. (Dad has all of them).

Coming off the platform for some it is elation, some ‘glad it’s over,’ other quietly content. One evening when a Trog commented on the beautiful encore that Paul Tortelier had just played he replied, “Ah oui. Mais comme l’amour c’est trop court.”

After a performance people can be quite angry with themselves or others. Quite often quartets or duos would come off arguing. The singer Mary Thomas, having performed a lesser composer’s imitation of John Cage’s Aria, stormed into the green room with a black face, hurled the score across the room – “RUBBISH” – then turned round with the sweetest smile on her face and went out to receive her applause.

Then there is the unpredictable. One day, in the early years at Bryanston, Elizabeth Schumann was waiting to go on stage to give a lecture and I, aged 19, was her attendant Trog. The previous lecture, John Clements speaking on the Chorus in Opera, was concluding with a record of the waltz from Gounod’s Faust. “Ah, Wunderbar!” cried Schumann, as she grabbed hold of me and waltzed all round the room with me. I subsequently begged that disc off John Clements and still have it to this day.

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